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Once in a lifetime: Damiano Caruso closes in on Giro d'Italia podium

Damiano Caruso of Bahrain Victorious in breakaway passing through Passo Giau
Damiano Caruso of Bahrain Victorious in breakaway passing through Passo Giau (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Damiano Caruso would usually be in bed at this hour on a rest day, not sitting in front of a computer screen answering questions from the press room of the Giro d’Italia. Not that he was complaining. 

"I’m really not used to doing a press conference on the second rest day. At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, I’d normally be taking a nap," Caruso joked. "But I’m happy to have done this." 

At this point in the Giro, meanwhile, the attention of the sala stampa would usually be trained squarely on another Sicilian, but this has been a trying race for Caruso’s old teammate, Vincenzo Nibali, who broke his wrist in training last month. 

Caruso, meanwhile, came here with the task of supporting Mikel Landa at Bahrain Victorious, only to be elevated to the role of team leader when the Basque was forced out by a crash in Cattolica in the opening week.

Caruso, a most dependable gregario for much of his career, has been a reliable presence at the head of this race ever since. He was second best on the Passo Giau in Monday’s abridged tappone and, by the finish line in Cortina d’Ampezzo, he was second overall, 2:24 behind Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), who gives the impression of being in a race entirely of his own. 

"At the moment, I don’t think that Bernal can be beaten. I don’t see any other rider who can do that," Caruso said on Tuesday.

"The heart says one thing, but the legs decide everything. I’d like to put him in difficulty but to me it’s evident that he’s the strongest, especially on the climbs, and he’s got a strong team to support him. I don’t have many options other than following him and hoping that something might turn the race upside down." 

Caruso has already suggested as much throughout this Giro. A week ago, when asked if he would already settle for a spot on the podium in Milan, he was admirably frank: "Who wouldn’t?" 

While that apparent lack of ambition to take on Bernal might disappoint the neutral, finishing on the podium of this Giro would mark the summit of Caruso’s career. Five days, three summit finishes and one time trial from Milan, he is in a strong position with 1:54 in hand on fourth-placed Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech).

Two years ago, Caruso told Cyclingnews that a stage win in a Grand Tour was the only personal ambition he had left, even if he added that achieving it wouldn’t change the tone of his career one way or another. A podium finish at this Giro might not change Caruso’s life, but he acknowledged that it is probably a once in a lifetime chance.

"I feel good, because I have a great opportunity," he said. "I have the opportunity to crown my career. It’s the kind of opportunity that doesn’t present itself very often to a rider like me. It might only come around once, so I’m very determined to achieve it."

Riding alone on the rest day

Standing on the podium in Milan next Sunday would thus represent a victory for Caruso, though in that interview with Cyclingnews, he also outlined how cycling was about rather more than just winning. He poked gentle fun at how cycling coverage, in Italy and elsewhere, focused on champions while overlooking the thousands of simultaneous stories flowing beneath the surface of the peloton. 

"It’s almost always the same banal questions with the riders who win: 'What do you expect from the race on Thursday?’ ‘What do I expect? Well, I expect to do a nice race, I’d like to win'," he deadpanned then.

Caruso’s position on general classification means he is now the subject of those questions and almost duty-bound to trot out those answers, for this week at least.

"I’m focused and I’ll just follow the best GC riders," he said of Wednesday’s summit finish at Sega di Ala, while he also cast his mind forward to the Tokyo Olympic Games, where, on this form, he might well be Italy’s best hope of a medal in the road race. 

"I’m not doing the Tour de France, so I’ll only be able to train instead of racing beforehand, but I hope that won’t impact too much on the final result."

Even so, there was still time in Caruso’s press conference to discuss the recent anniversary of the 1992 assassination of the anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone. Caruso’s father Salvatore, a police officer, had been part of Falcone’s security detail earlier in his career, lending a personal resonance to an event that marked a watershed in Sicilian history. 

"It’s right to keep remembering that moment. The important thing is to study what happened and keep teaching it to the next generation, so the same things don’t happen again," said Caruso, who has made a point of basing himself in Sicily rather than on the Italian mainland or in a tax haven abroad during his professional career.

The 33-year-old followed his own path on Tuesday’s rest day, too. Although he has placed in the top 10 of all three Grand Tours, he has never before faced this kind of daily attention and responsibility. As the Giro broke for its final rest before its haul through the Alps, he opted for a rare moment of solitude.

"I rode alone today, because I wanted to take a different route and I didn’t want to put my teammates out," Caruso said. "I went up the Passo San Pellegrino alone. It was nice and calm riding up there. It was a moment to relax, a moment to listen to my emotions and get rid of a bit of stress." 

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